Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday rejected a GOP call to resign, telling a heated Senate hearing that Republicans were trying to score political points instead of addressing significant issues.
Under attack from the outset by Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder rejected accusations he was stonewalling congressional investigators on the botched "Fast and Furious" gunrunning sting operation and failing to investigate recent leaks of classified information properly.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, leveled the harshest criticism, accusing Holder of misleading Congress over what he and other top Justice Department officials knew about the Fast and Furious program and refusing to appoint a special counsel to investigate leaked national security details in recent media reports.
Holder rested his head on one hand as Cornyn recited a litany of allegations involving the attorney general's performance.
"I'm afraid we've come to an impasse," Cornyn said, adding that Holder "violated the public trust" in his view. "With regret, you've left me with no choice but to join those who call for you to resign your office."
Holder responded by calling Cornyn's list of allegations "almost breathtaking in its inaccuracy" and said: "I don't have any intention of resigning."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that President Barack Obama maintains "absolute confidence" in the attorney general, which Holder noted Tuesday.
Regarding congressional demands for Fast and Furious documents, including a House committee that plans to take up a contempt measure against Holder next week, the attorney general said good-faith efforts to work with the House panel have failed to reach a deal.
"The desire here is not for accommodation but for political point-making," Holder said, calling such behavior "the thing that turns people off about Washington."
In what appeared to be a coordinated move, Republicans, led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, introduced a resolution Tuesday supporting the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the classified leaks.
At the Judiciary Committee hearing, Republican senators said Holder's decision to appoint two U.S. attorneys to investigate, rather than a special counsel, failed to address the seriousness of the violations and represented a Democratic double standard.
The issue sparked angry exchanges between senators, with Chairman Pat Leahy of Vermont and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, both Democrats, taking issue with arguments by Cornyn and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, that Holder was acting improperly.
In response to Democratic support for Holder on the classified leaks investigation, Graham shot back: "If the shoe was on the other foot, you and everyone else on the other side would be crying to high heaven to appoint a special prosecutor that all of us could buy into."
Graham noted that as senators, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden had called for the appointment of a special counsel in past situations that involved Republican transgressions, such as White House leaks in the Valerie Plame case that revealed the identity of the CIA operative.
The current leaks were more serious, Graham argued, and Holder should do now what Obama and Biden had called for then.
However, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee and is a member of the judiciary panel, repeated her past contention that a special counsel's investigation would take too long to deal with the immediate threat from classified leaks.
She said she would oppose the McCain resolution, adding that Holder took the right step in naming two U.S. attorneys to investigate in addition to the FBI probe already under way.
Holder told the committee that both he and FBI Director Robert Mueller had been interviewed "because we were people who had knowledge of these matters, and we wanted to make sure that with regard to the investigation, that it began with us."
Describing his experience as "a serious interview that was done by some serious FBI agents," Holder said he believed about 100 interviews had been conducted so far.
Holder earlier offered to negotiate with congressional leaders on turning over documents involving Fast and Furious to avoid what he said could become a constitutional crisis. He later modified his characterization of the problem to a possible constitutional conflict.
"I am prepared to make compromises with regard to the documents to be made available," Holder said. At the same time, Holder said congressional Republicans must be open to working out an agreement.
"I've got to have a willing partner," Holder said. "I've extended my hand, and I'm waiting to hear back."
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will consider the contempt measure against Holder on June 20, a panel statement said Monday. A vote by the panel could occur that day, and the measure would then require approval from the full chamber.
Monday's announcement escalated a high-stakes, election-year face-off over what Republicans said is Holder's failure to respond to a subpoena for Justice Department documents on the botched operation.
The department has acknowledged the program, which allowed illegally purchased guns to "walk" across the border into Mexico, was badly flawed. Such sting operations have now been prohibited.